I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to live with integrity as a white person inside a racist system. I read about it, watch movies and TV about it, write about it, teach about it, talk about it, and try to give people (especially other white people) chances to learn, think and talk about it. This is a part of my work-work, but more important is that I let it change me as part of my how-to-be-human work.
This material has been on my mind for going on 30 years. It was one of the reasons I didn’t want to move to New Hampshire when the idea first came up 20 years ago: How could I do racial justice work if I lived around mostly white people? The demographics have changed a little since then, giving me more opportunities to work for and with people of color in a few nearby cities[i], but the truth is that most of the places I go have a lot more white people than anyone else.
When we moved here I assumed most of my work would be with white people about their unearned privilege—that it exists, how it manifests, how to notice it, how to resist it, and how to follow the advice of the self-described black, lesbian, mother, warrior, and poet Audre Lourde, who told us that
To acknowledge privilege is the first step in making it available for wider use. Each of us is blessed in some particular way, whether we recognize our blessings or not. And each of us, somewhere in our lives, must clear a space within that blessing where she can call upon whatever resources are available to her in the name of something that must be done.
And I have found such opportunities. The twin shock waves of the murders of men, women, and children of color hitting our twitter feeds and (more recently) the election of someone who openly sanctions hate rocked many of us out of complacency, leaving us shaking the fuzz from our heads and asking “Now what?” The process of answering this question starts with reading, thinking, and talking so I get to be useful in this way from time to time.
(Okay, I have to say here that an uncomfortable part of this work is the routine discovery that you have been missing something obvious … Something people without your privilege know and have been trying to tell you. Here’s my most recent one.)
… if there aren’t a lot of People of Color around here it ISN’T because none of them wants to be.
Southern New Hampshire is a great place to live. It is beautiful, with forests, fields, ocean (18 whole miles of it!), and mountains all within a few hours drive. The cost of living is relatively sane, city culture is kind of close, it’s easy to make a difference in one’s community and state, and unemployment is among the lowest in the country.
This raises the question: What pressures are keeping away people of color who would like to live here?
Some of it I know about. The local NPR station and the Carsey Institute (a public policy group with the University of New Hampshire) put a study out last year about racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice system[ii]. The short story is that “black and Hispanic people are arrested and incarcerated at higher rates than whites are, and at more disproportionate rates than black and Hispanics nationwide (emphasis added).” Blacks and Hispanics account for 9% of the state’s arrests, though they are less than 5% of the population. They are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested than whites. In the county with the two largest cities and most diverse populations[iii], a black person is 5 time more likely to be incarcerated while waiting for a trial (with the rolling, awful consequences of not being able to get to one’s job and take care of one’s kids). I don’t have the stats on being stopped for Driving While Black, getting hired, and finding decent housing, but I’m going to assume here that these are also issues. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that Crew 38 (racist skinheads), the National Socialist Movement, the KKK, and the Eastern Hammerskins (racist skinheads) are all active here[iv]. I know of four incidents of racist graffiti recently at local schools, all saying that “Diversity is code for white genocide”[v].
What pressures are keeping people away who would like to live here? Enough that it isn’t enough to simply help white people see barriers set up against others but not them. It’s time, I think, to turn my attention to taking those barriers down.
p.s. Better thinkers than I have gone before me down this road. One I follow closely is BlackGirlinMaine (in my Websites I Follow list over there è). What I am trying to clear my vision to see, she has lived. Always listen to the ones who have lived it first. And support her blog if you have the resources. We need her voice.
[v] http://www.wmur.com/article/unity-vigil-held-in-response-to-racially-charged-signs-at-manchester-schools/8637015, two by personal report in Concord